Trains, trains, trains. We never really seem to have much luck in them and the long journey from Astana to Novosibirsk was no exception. Departing at 5pm we have a train change in Petrolav before the border, find our beds and settle in for a good nights sleep. The girl opposite us then proceeds to drink an entire litre of energy drink and talk nonstop until 2am. We’re then woken by immigration at 3am to have our passports inspected with a magnifying glass before they stamp us in and leave without giving us the necessary customs form. And to top it off our window wouldn’t open. It seemed almost every second compartment had fixed windows (typical of the old rolling stock) and when it’s the middle of a stifling summer the mass of sweating Russian bodies can make first class very tempting.
For most passport holders leaving Central Asia and heading east over land there’s really only two options – you either head straight into China (usually via Kashgar) or you head for Mongolia. Even though they’re basically touching on the map unfortunately Kazakhstan and Mongolia don’t share a land border, and as there’s no way we were going to miss it we opted for a 10 day transit through Russia ticking off Lake Baikal on the way. Our plan of hitting up four destinations in 10 days meant the pace would give us a taste of what this part of southern Siberia can be like in the summer, a shame really as the last time we were in Russia was right dead in the middle of winter. Summer is when the inside living moves outside, the parks once again come to life and the general mood of the population turns from the cold and miserable to the ‘you can talk to me to today’ (bit like London really!). Our itinerary of Astana – Novosibirsk – Irkutsk – Olkhon Island – Ulan Ude – Ulaan Bataar covered over 4,000km and was set solid due to transit visa requirements by the Russian Embassy (you have to book all of our trains in advance in order to get it approved).
To ensure we could have two nights chilling out on Lake Baikal’s shamanistic Olkhon Island a couple of nights we’re spent on the train thus saving both time and accommodation. Another way to do this is by storing your baggage at the train station for the day whilst you go out sightseeing as we did in Novosibirsk.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Novosibirsk was a creepy guy outside the station throwing water on unsuspecting young women as they walked past.
‘A robbery scam, clearly’
Were our initial thoughts. But upon crossing the road not far from the station we were both smacked in the face by a stream of water shot by a middle aged guy holding a giant super-soaker in one hand, his steering wheel in the other and a big fat grin plastered across his face.
‘WTF is going on?!’
We can’t help but laugh at his childish grin and for the rest of the day we notice high school aged children all over down drenched from head to toe, water guns in hand, and we’re both hit a number of times from behind throughout the day. We never did manage to find out what it was all about
There’s really not a lot to see here with one day more than ample to tick off the sights whilst you wait for the next leg of the journey. Being back in Russia we were desperate for a good IPA so the first place we hunted out was the Craft Beer & Kitchen on Krasnyy. For those of you wanting a pizza this is the place to kill two birds with one stone. Although a little costly as the beer was imported and the exchange rate had dropped out of our favour, it’s nice to sit in the alfresco dining in the summer and watch people squirting each other from their car windows as they drove past. People watching from here was also great, and we were constantly commenting on the vast differences after several months in more conservative Central Asia. Girls with half shaven heads, cleavage spilling out, facial piercings and super short skirts had not been a common sight since entering Iran.
The majority of sights are located on (or just off of) Krasnyy and with only 12 hours in town this is where we spent most of our time.Further along you’ll find the requisite Lenin statue and the Opera and Ballet House with its Soviet monument to the workers out the front, which youngsters on skateboards have claimed as home turf. One unique sight is the tiny which Chapel of St. Nicholas, located in the middle of the street. Once (apparently) marking the geographical centre of Russia, it was knocked down after only 15 years in 1930 before being rebuilt in 1993 to celebrate the cities 100th birthday.
Finally just as you start to descend down to the river the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its red brick exterior gazes out over the flowing Ob River. A short detour up a side street will bring you to the quirky traffic light monument in commemoration of the cities first traffic lights which supposedly stood in this spot. Unfortunately we were too late to town to check out the temporary replica of the GoT’s Iron Throne but I’m sure if they put one here permanently people would be less likely to simply pass on by. Who wouldn’t pass up THAT selfie opportunity?
A little further afield (a short metro ride away near Studencheskaya station), is the Yohoho Craft Beer Bar.With fridges packed full of bottles and no less than a dozen on tap in this basement bar, the logical choice was to jump into a beer tasting and ‘appreciation / get drunk with strangers’, session. You’ll find marvelously priced beers from RUB170 to RUB300 per pint with most costing around RUB200 (USD$2.50 at the time). The beer tasting cost RUB500 and consisted of 9 beers, both Russian and from abroad. A bright open place, even with its basement location, friendly owners and a great clientele it’s a great place to hang out while waiting for a train, to use the WiFi or just to get drunk with the Novo locals.Just remember in Cyrillic the sign looks more like Hoxoxo…
With the sights ticked off we settled in for a few as Matt decided to join the beer tasting. Soon enough we had made friends with the locals, so much so that we didn’t keep track of time and it was a frantic dash out to grab a cab in time to make our overnight train to Irkutsk. One of our new acquaintances must have informed the taxi driver of our plight as he rapidly careered through the streets to the train station and all for RUB300 (under USD$4), something we would not have managed without our new beer buddies from Yohoho!
Tips for Novosibirsk
- Luggage storage is located in the basement of the train station. Be prepared to wait to check your items in as most people wait until the train is at the platform before they collect their bags and they get priority. The cost is RUB100 (USD$1.50) per bag, the guy is friendly and even let us strap bags on bags to keep the cost down to one item. Show him you outbound ticket and he’ll tell you went to come back to collect our gear.
- On the way back to the station you can pick up plenty of fresh vegetables from street stalls to supplement those TASTY instant noodle bowls that make up the staple long distance train journey!
Our Russian Train Tips
- Try and book all your tickets as early as possible for the greatest amount of options. The RZD English site is now very easy to use but be very careful of the times….if you’re doing to same route as us you’ll cross several time zones and all train times are given in Moscow time. Time to put your mathematics skills to good use.
- In the summer you can open the windows though this seems to be selfishly controlled by those on the top bunks. Opt for these beds if you need climate control.
- When travelling from Kazakhstan to Russia the times printed on your ticket can be confusing. Typically all times for tickets issued in Kazakhstan are in Kazakhstan time, and tickets issued in Russia are always in Moscow time. However our ticket from Astana to Petrolav (within Kazakhstan) gave the arrival time in Moscow time, meaning we had a slight panic when we thought we had an hour to complete the last 177km of the trip in order to make our connecting train, completely impossible on an old Soviet train!
- The corridor beds in plaztcart (third class, our preferred and the cheapest option) seem narrower, if you’re a bigger boy opt for one in the compartment.
- There is always hot water available, therefore the go to option for meals is instant noodles.
- At most major station stops you’ll see people getting off to smoke. Many are also getting off to buy food from kiosks dotted along the platform. We didn’t realise this for some time and when we did we ALWAYS tried to be first off the carriage as the queues get big. You can buy limited fresh vegetables, milk, water, chocolate and yep, noodles (if you’re lucky enough you can sometimes even get dumplings).
Up next Irkutsk and Olkhon Island on mighty Lake Baikal!
You can check out more of our summer in Siberia and winter in eastern Russia photos on Flickr and Instagram.